Confession: We bullied our Istanbul tour guide into adding the Spice Bazaar to our packed Turkey itinerary. “Come ON,” our travel blogger pack cajoled. “We’re right here anyway, and it’s one of the most famous sights in Istanbul! We’ll make it worth your while… We’ll buy you a Turkish Delight! Or three?”
With that, our guide grinned and led us into the 350-year-old building.
It was key to have a guide in the bustle of the Spice Market, because our guide led us right to his favorite store out of the 85 that line the long building. Did you know that the Spice Bazaar is actually only 5% spices? The other 95% of wares include all sorts of things I wanted to stick into my mouth immediately, including baklava, dried fruit, and more flavors of Turkish Delight than I knew possible.
For the body, Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar offers fragrant oils that glisten in their rounded glass bottles, and chunky soaps filled with herbs and infusions to make a gal’s skin gleam.
“Want some food samples?” the store’s jolly owner asked, and our blogger group swooped towards him like piranhas. One by one, the owner pulled the different delicacies from the wall, slicing off pieces for our grasping hands. My favorite was the pomegranate Turkish Delight!
For those who don’t know, Turkish Delight is the tempting treat many Americans first heard of in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” It features a sweet gelatinous base that is dusted with powdered sugar, and sometimes contains embedded goodies like nuts and dried fruit.
So what is the history behind the Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar? This famed spot was constructed in 1660s as part of the funding plan for the “New Mosque” (oh-so-new when construction was started on it in 1597), because rent from the spice stalls funded the mosque’s upkeep.
Let us draw our eyes away from the food for a moment to peek outside the Spice Market and see the New Mosque in its current glory. Look familiar? James Bond had an epic motorcycle chase around it in the opening of “Skyfall,” speeding right through the middle of the Grand Bazaar, which is the market next to the Spice Bazaar, and arguably one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions.
Back in the day, the Spice Market was the final stop for camel caravans completing the Silk Route from faraway lands like China and India. All of this great architecture and food would sure be a welcome sight for a tired camel, eh?
In Turkish, the name of the Spice Bazaar translates as “Egyptian Market” because construction of the complex was originally funded by taxes from Egyptian imports. As I emphasized in my first Turkey article and shall say again, for centuries, Turkey has been a connecting central point between Africa, Asia, and Europe. In many ways, it remains so today.
Back into the Spice Market we go. As my fellow travel bloggers began buying up boxes of Turkish Delight, I cozied up to a hot glass of Turkish tea. One of my secrets for budget travel is to refrain from buying too many gifts (which is a cinch for me since gifts are not my “Love Language”), but I can see how the Spice Bazaar would be a gifter’s dream!
As I wandered up the store’s steep ladder to a room lined with ornate plates, I thought about what brought our group to Istanbul. Yes, Turkish Airlines had gathered 29 top travel bloggers to tour Turkey, but with the world as it is now, it became clear to me that this wasn’t just about tourism: it’s about positive diplomacy.
What brings people together across cultures, religions, ignorance, and anger? Food! “See that Baklava?” our guide had asked us, smiling. “Greece and Turkey have a big fight about who has the best baklava style, but it’s a fun fight! We all laugh about it. It’s a lot better than other fights that are out there.”
I went back downstairs and began admiring the teas. There were teas for everything! “Relax Tea,” “Energy Tea,” and… others I cannot print. The multicolored, multi-shaped dried flowers and leaves that made up each tea snuggled together comfortably to create the beverage’s magic. Similarly, the Spice Market swirled with visitors from around the world who were all seeking deliciousness. Together, we all created our own mixed spice of hungry, happy humanity.
As I ate my last piece of pomegranate Turkish Delight, a Saudi Arabian couple came into the store at the same time as a blond pair whose accents suggested Texas. “Welcome!” proclaimed the store’s owner, handing a sample of baklava to all four visitors. All four ate and smiled.
So that’s what I got at Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar: The magical sight of humanity’s oneness in the face of good food and fun shopping. What would YOU have gotten?